Every couple of years or so, journalists and writers and documentary film makers get momentarily obsessed with the issue of over-population. David Katz, in an article for the Huffington Post, thinks we should be more concerned:
Why is it that some 500,000,000 eggs have been recalled in the U.S. due to salmonella contamination? Proximal causes have much to do with modern farming and food handling techniques, and something to do with FDA resource limitations. But what about the root cause?
And how about the drought in Russia, leading to massive crop failure? Inundation in Pakistan leading to massive displacement of the population? Flooding in China? And while we’re at it, accelerated melting of the polar ice, with ramifications we are still just guessing at?
As you may guess, the “root cause” Katz is getting at is overpopulation.
The root cause that connects these dots — and many others besides — is global population growth. There are too many of us.
I raise the issue because it’s ominously absent from almost all discussion of global warming and climate change, modern industrial agricultural practices, and the propagation and transmission of both infectious and chronic disease. This is odd, and worrisome. It suggests either obliviousness, fatalism or capitulation — and none of these is good!
I read Ishmael a couple years ago. The issue of over-population comes up, and Ishmael, the gorilla-philosopher, suggests a rather taboo explanation for this:
“[A]ny species in the wild will invariably expand to the extent that its food supply expands … In the natural community, whenever a population’s food supply increases, that population increases. As that population increases, its food supply decreases, and as its food supply decreases, that population decreases. This interaction between food populations and feeder populations is what keeps everything in balance.”
What he is essentially saying is that the way to curb over-population is to stop feeding impoverished and starving nations.
Understandably, this sparked plenty of dissent. As Ronald Bailey writes:
In the real, non-idealized world, the population of our human ancestors was kept “in balance” (i.e., low) by high mortality rates for infants and mothers. “For hundreds of thousands of years as hunter-gatherers, and subsequently in agrarian societies, our predecessors had an average life expectancy of 25-30 years,” Australian epidemiologist Tony McMichael has pointed out. “Most of them died of infectious disease, and many died of malnutrition, starvation and physical trauma.” In other words, Ishmael’s “balance” is just a euphemism for starvation and disease.
They’re both right, of course. But is there a middle way to stopping the depletion of our natural resources without the deaths of millions of impoverished, starving people?
China’s well-known solution to curbing their own over-population is their one-child policy. The idea is self-explanatory: to control their huge population, married couples are permitted to have only one child. Certain exceptions are made, but in general, no couple is allowed more than one child.
It’s a good idea for many reasons. From Wikipedia’s article on the one-child policy:
It is reported that the focus of China on population control helps provide a better health service for women and a reduction in the risks of death and injury associated with pregnancy. At family planning offices, women receive free contraception and pre-natal classes. Help is provided for pregnant women to closely monitor their health. In various places in China, the government rolled out a ‘Care for Girls’ program, which aims at eliminating cultural discrimination against girls in rural and underdeveloped areas through subsidies and education.
Can you imagine free contraceptives and pre-natal classes in our Western societies? The results of these practices being implemented on a global scale would be incredibly beneficial. We would be a healthier, better educated society. The idea is made possible when more resources are available by limiting procreation.
The practice of the one-child policy can be oppressive, though, especially when it comes to sexism:
China, like many other Asian countries, has a long tradition of son preference. The commonly accepted explanation for son preference is that sons in rural families may be thought to be more helpful in farm work. Both rural and urban populations have economic and traditional incentives, including widespread remnants of Confucianism, to prefer sons over daughters.
In order to ensure that families will have boys, female infants are routinely killed, and abortions performed for no other reason than because the fetus was female or possibly disabled. In order to enforce this:
Reported abuses in its enforcement include bribery, coercion, compulsory sterilization, forced abortion, and possibly infanticide, with most reports coming from rural areas. A 2001 report exposed that a quota of 20,000 abortions and sterilizations was set for Huaiji County in Guangdong Province in one year due to reported disregard of the one-child policy. The effort included using portable ultrasound devices to identify abortion candidates in remote villages. Earlier reports also show that women as far along as 8.5 months pregnant were forced to abort by injection of saline solution. There have also been reports of women, in their 9th month of pregnancy or already in labour, having their children killed whilst in the birth canal or immediately after birth. Stephen Moore of the Cato Institute announced that the One child policy is “an ongoing genocide.”
There are eugenics-related concerns, as well, that, in practice, turn the policy into a very ableist one:
The one-child policy includes eugenic regulations. Both partners have to be rigorously tested before they marry. If one spouse has an “unsatisfactory” physical or mental condition, ranging from dyslexia to schizophrenia, they are banned from marrying. The Chinese government claimed that these regulations are intended to “improve the quality of the Chinese population.”
ReasonableGuy, a commenter on Katz’s article, offered his solution:
In high school biology in 1968-69, I understood about the problems of overpopulation and decided that I would father only two children. I have fathered only two children. A few years after my daughter was born I had a vasectomy. Many other educated men that I know did likewise.
How do we control population without letting large populations of humans starve to death, or enforcing laws that wind up aborting fetuses or killing infants because of their sex or perceived mental or physical capacity? It seems as though a reasonable solution can be had; but how to get everyone to agree on something? A lot of people ignorantly blame immigrant populations for their lack of family planning, but having an unsustainable number of children is certainly not limited to any one group of people, either; groups from all cultures and walks of life reject contraception of any kind deliberately. For examples in the Western, “civilized” world, just look at the Duggar’s, the “Octomom,” or my former neighbors, who are number 3 for seemingly no other reason than to prove that God wants them to have more babies.
I support the theory of limiting families’ number of children, but at what point do we call it what it is, which is a denial of reproductive freedom? And at what point, if any, should we consider that perhaps unlimited reproductive freedom may need to take a backseat to the over-arching concerns and continued existence of humanity?